This one felt a little bit like justice.
Iliya Ilic slammed home a goal in the 95th minute to help visiting New Mexico United earn a 1-1 draw with San Diego Loyal SC at Terero Stadium on Sunday. The goal, converted off a pinpoint cross by Chelo Martinez, came just seconds before the match’s final whistle.
It was the third straight draw and 10th of the season for New Mexico (10-9-10), but this one rated as a win. The point moved United into a tie with Austin Bold for fourth — the final playoff spot — in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division.
NMU moved two points ahead of fifth-place Rio Grande Valley. All three contenders have three matches remaining.
“That was a playoff match for us,” United coach Troy Lesesne said in a post-match interview, “there’s no doubt about that. Playoff match, playoff atmosphere against a very good team and that’s what we need. That type of performance is going to get us in the playoffs.”
Ilic’s late heroics stunned San Diego Loyal (14-10-5), which has clinched a playoff spot and is trying to nail down second place in the Pacific Division. It was a much-needed turn of fortunes for New Mexico, which has been on the wrong end of several stoppage-time goals this season.
“I’m so proud of the group for continuing to push on in that game,” Lesesne said. “I think we’ve been doing that all year. Sometimes we’ve come up short in other draw situations or ended up losing a match, but guys continue to believe in what we’re trying to do.”
Sunday’s match was evenly played for most of the afternoon with United posting slim statistical advantages. The visitors outshot San Diego 15-12 and put eight shots on target to Loyal’s five. New Mexico finished with 51% of the possession.
But until the closing seconds, San Diego goalkeeper Austin Guerrero appeared a lock for player-of-the-match honors. Guerrero posted seven saves, including a pair of spectacular stops against New Mexico’s Chris Wehan in the second half. United’s defense was rock-solid for most of the match, as well. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis made several difficult stops, including deflecting a blast by San Diego’s Alejandro Guido off the crossbar in the 12th minute.
Defender Rashid Tetteh also came up big for United, blocking a low Guido shot off the line in the 51st minute. Tetteh got a foot on the shot, which then deflected up and off the crossbar to keep the score even at 0-0.
San Diego finally broke through in the 61st minute on a well-executed set piece. Guido sent a corner kick into traffic and Douglas Martinez headed it between defenders and past Tambakis, whose vision was screened on the play.
It remained 1-0 through the rest of regulation and when Guerrero managed to stop Wehan in a one-on-one situation in the 83rd minute, it seemed United might be headed for a hard-fought defeat. But NMU continued to press, forcing several late corner kicks, including one late in stoppage time. Loyal cleared away Martinez’s initial serve, but the ball came back to him on the right wing seconds later. Martinez served a bending cross into the box and Ilic, who came on as a substitute in the 73rd minute, left his feet to right-foot the ball into the net.
United returns home to face San Antonio FC (13-7-9) on Wednesday, a matchup that was already on Lesesne’s mind Sunday evening. Asked if he was happy after his team’s dramatic draw, Lesesne said, “No. I’ll be happy when we’re in the playoffs.”